Sunday, November 14, 2010

Westward Ho!

Finally I have a chance to sit down and write; so much to catch up with.

We left the morning of Saturday the 6th for Chicago where we were to begin a six day trip I had booked on-line for a scenic railway tour that would take us first to the Grand Canyon and then to Los Angeles.

We had two hours to kill before our departure from Chicago’s Union Station. Just enough time to grab lunch and shop for sleep-ware which neither of us packed… a good thing considering how much time I spent in bed during the trip.

We boarded and left the station on time. We had booked a sleeper car with a bathroom and shower. Our sleeper had a long settee on one side, a teeny tiny sink and counter on the other, space in between that configuration to allow for a small open area and a single seat along the window. The toilet and shower combination were in a closet behind the sink/counter. We had two fairly large windows which gave us an ample view of the ride we were about to take. One thing you notice as soon as you enter these trains is the stale odor that permeates the air.

Both of us had wanted to take a scenic rail trip, and had wanted to see the Grand Canyon – a trip I couldn’t make by car. This particular package included meals while on board the train, one night at a lodge in Williams, Arizona, (along with a meal), a trip on the Grand Canyon Railway into the park, a two hour bus tour in the park, a room at the Maswik Lodge, a return trip to Williams and onto Los Angeles which included one night at the Biltmore Hotel.

We settled into our car and claimed our territory. You are required to schedule your dinner and lunch time and had arranged a 6:15 time slot for dinner that evening. We were told that our time would be called. The view leaving Chicago was not unpleasant taking you primarily through residential areas. Then we hit the cornfields, miles and miles of cornfields that had been plowed for the winter. Dusk was creeping in, casting a golden light to the browned fields. Dusk is my favorite time of the day for the way the light falls on buildings, trees and cornfields.

We waited to be called for our dinner seating, but 6:15 passed and no call came, so we figured we would walk down to the dinning car. Well, it was made clear that we were not to come before we were called, but after a few minutes we were told to take a seat. One of the rules of the dining car is that you share your table. The booths seat four, so if you are a party of three, you may expect one guest. This is actually a good idea as you get to know others on the train and you could find yourself in some interesting conversation. Well it didn’t happen that night. We sat with two very odd sisters from Long Island who also happened to be our neighbors in the sleeping car. They were extremely chatty and Thierry told me he heard some “interesting” conversations from where he sat in our car.

The food was really quite poor. Okay, as Thierry says, the trip was not about the food; but when you are Italian, it is always about the food. I ordered the salmon and mashed potatoes. String beans and salad also came with the dinner. A good thing! The salmon tasted as if it had been processed and boiled. The potatoes were from the box, but edible. We got through dinner and went back to our sleeper. About an hour after returning, I came down with a bad case of the chills. I tried to warm and curl up on the settee, and may have slept a bit. We asked for our berths to be turned down at 10:00 and I promptly went to sleep. The next morning I felt awful. Fortunately Thierry had a thermometer with him. My temperature was 100.6. I ended up sleeping almost the entire day, waking long enough to take a peek out the window, drink liquids and pop Advils.

Thierry was on his own for breakfast, lunch and dinner – and he did, in fact, have a few interesting conversations with other passengers.

The train ride took us through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and then into Arizona. It was fascinating to see the landscape change, as Thierry put it, “cornfields changed to moonscapes in New Mexico.”

In New Mexico, hills and plateaus seem to rise out of nothing in the middle of vast fields when we entered the Santa Fe Trail. We then hit the prairies and were entertained by an entirely different landscape.

We de-boarded the train at 10:30 p.m. in Williams, where we were met by a small bus and taken to the lodge. We were the only two in the bus, which rambled up and down a pitch black dirt road for sometime before reaching the highway. We checked in and went right to bed.

Monday my fever was 101.2. Thierry was extremely concerned and wanted to get me to a doctor or hospital. I told him we were going to the GC, especially since it didn’t require any effort on my part except to get aboard another train and bus. And we learned they had a clinic there. The one nice thing about the trip was that your luggage was always taken care of – they removed it from you room, put it on the train, from there to your next hotel and then back again.

The Grand Canyon Railway which takes you to the park is charming, designed to look like something out of the 1800’s. The ride included a strolling guitarist who serenaded us for a quarter of an hour. The ride took two hours and fifteen minutes – mainly because the train travels at about 30 mph for a 65 mile trip.

When we arrived at the park our bus tour was upgraded to another which included lunch. What a treat, a buffet at a large cafeteria which consisted of a salad bar (thank goodness), ultra cheesy pasta, chicken, beef and fish in various sauces, rice and potatoes. I was craving chicken soup the entire trip – their offering was cream of potato with bacon – ick.

The tour took us along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon and we were able to get out and walk around and take pictures at two locations. As Thierry said, it was AMAZING, a term we rarely use. The sheer magnitude of the canyon, the colors, the way the terrain is sculpted and carved are breathtaking. (See pictures in photo gallery). So is the altitude! Both Thierry and I found ourselves struggling to move around our room on our second day there.

We checked in at the Maswik Lodge and I promptly got into bed. Again, Thierry was on his own for dinner. I won’t go into it other than to tell the story of Thierry smuggling a tiny bottle of wine out of the dining hall. When he bought the first along with his meal, he was told – these don’t leave the building, and the checker removed the cap and threw it away. When he picked up a sandwich for me, he bought another bottle of wine and the same thing happened. So, he snuck off into a corner, stuffed a napkin in the neck of the bottle, put it in his pocket and snuck out. Luckily he didn’t spill any on his way back to our room which was a bit of a walk from the lodge – in the pitch black. They have no lighting around the facility.

The next morning my temperature was down to about 99.5. I had an appetite and was craving a good breakfast. We choose the El Tovar hotel which is situated along the rim and had our first good meal. We then went to the clinic where they took chest X-rays, blood and urine tests. The upshot of all this was I had an elevated white count and was handed a bottle of antibiotics. We returned to the El Tovar where we had some lunch and I then parked myself in their lobby near the fireplace while Thierry took a walk along the rim-trail and snapped more pictures.

We took a final look at the “big ditch” and boarded the GCR to head back to Williams. On the return trip we were boarded by “bandits”, had to give up a few bucks, and were once again serenaded. We were treated to yet another buffet at the lodge in Williams, but they at least had a good chicken-rice soup. We boarded our train for LA at 10:45 p.m.

Neither of us got much sleep on the way to LA. We rose about 4:30 a.m. and made it to the dining car for breakfast. We arrived at LA and grabbed a cab to the hotel. The Biltmore was built in 1923 and sits in the heart of the business district. The interior is decorated with frescos, murals, marble fountains, bronze stairwells, and crystal chandeliers – quite an impressive building. We had a pleasant room and once again, I was craving a good breakfast – so after walking the neighborhood, I had my second most wonderful meal on the trip – the eggs and the bacon were perfect!
We went back to the room after breakfast and I promptly went to sleep. After a few hours Thierry decided to take a walk and visit the new concert hall designed by Frank Gehry. I wasn’t up to the walk so yet again, he went alone – but was really thrilled with what he saw and the design of the building. We had a nice dinner that evening then turned in early as we needed to be up and out by 7:00 a.m.
Our flight home was uneventful. Southwest was very efficient; we arrived in Philadelphia about 20 minutes late. Our friends Lisa and Kirk picked us up and I made it to bed by 10:00 pm. I was able to have my chemo on Friday and have remained fever-free.

All-in-all, I am glad we pushed on to the Canyon. This was not exactly the trip I had in mind, and worried about Thierry the whole time who was worried about me the whole time. It was a memorable trip in many ways.


Jennifer said...

Sounds like a great trip, Mary, but so sorry you were unwell. Charlie and I visited the Grand Canyon this summer, on our way back from California by road and love our pictures.
Your railway car sounds a LOT smaller than the boat!
Love from Trinidad. Jenny

jeannine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jeannine said...

Amazing pictures!! Absolutely wonderful the Grand Canyon. What a trip you made together, and what a pity you had fever.... Love, Jeannine